Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Public Education – The Time is Now!

The Supreme Court ruling on May 13 against the 600+ school districts that had sued the State of Texas relative to adequacy and equity of funding for public schools should serve as a catalyst for public education advocates to come together and to begin to craft a unified message.  We are blessed to have a large number of public education advocacy groups in Texas, but I sometimes wonder if this is what gets in the way of achieving the successes for which we strive.

As recently as May 20, I have had a number of discussions with legislators, some of whom actively support public education and some of whom do not even have the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students on their radar.  The former group, led by individuals such as Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, is intimately familiar with the challenges in public education and has led the charge to pass legislation to address the shortcomings. 

In a conversation with Chairman Aycock on May 20, he talked about the need for both districts and advocacy groups to come together and to create a unified message.  Admittedly, there will not be commonality or agreement on all issues.  If that were the case, the number of advocacy groups would be significantly smaller.  However, there are certain tenets around which messaging should evolve and he strongly encouraged all off us to come together and find the common ground.

I have also spoken recently with Representatives Susan King and Diego Bernal, as well as Sen. Eddie Lucio; they all “get it” and are working tirelessly on behalf of the public education students.  Without question, there is greater support in the House for public education but that doesn’t mean that we should not focus our messaging on those in the Senate as well.   In many cases, it simply requires that we take the time to craft our message and reach out to those who either have a limited perspective on public education or advocate for moving away from public education.  Regardless of the focus, however, the time is now for us to come together.

The legislators to be sworn in in January, 2017 will likely include a number of new faces, whether as a result of retirement, election defeats, or individuals running for other elected positions.  We now have just over five months until the 85th legislative sessions convenes.  This is the time, the time to create messaging and the time to undertake an aggressive effort to advocate for public education with our elected officials.  In short, the time is now to Make Education a Priority.  Our students are looking to us for leadership on their behalf.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ravitch v Tilson - Part II – The Conversation Continues

I previously posted a blog about a conversation between noted public education advocated Diane Ravitch and Whitney Tilson.  What was most encouraging to me about that dialog was the fact that two individuals with sharply differing views on many topics found a common ground on so many.  I applaud the efforts of each to engage in a conversation about public education.  Last week, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published the second series of conversations between Ravitch and Tilson.  I continue to be fascinated by this exchange and am heartened that, even though they have different perspectives, the conversation is about public education.  The post from Ms. Strauss can be found by clicking here.

Speaking strictly for myself, I am often frustrated by what I perceive to be a lack of caring on the part of those who want to tear public education apart under the heading of school reform.  In a recent blog, I noted the need to invest in public education just as we do in our businesses or even our own lives.  If we fail to invest, we run a greater risk of failure.  But I have also come to realize through my advocacy efforts that mine is not the only opinion that counts.  I’ve learned from others and while I may not agree, I have learned!

As an example, the recent Texas Supreme Court ruling on school finance litigation (the 7th such suit in the last almost 30 years) regarding meeting the “minimum constitutional requirements” offered some real insights into why they made the unanimous ruling they did.  Do I agree with everything in the ruling?  Certainly not, but there is much in the ruling that makes sense to me.  As a result, I find myself wanting to better understand the ruling and ramifications so that I can frame my own thoughts on public education and my messaging to our elected officials.  I do know one thing; going to Austin to “bash” the decision or to criticize those with whom I have differing opinions will not solve the challenges inherent in public education.  By the way, I prefer to think of these as “challenges”, not “problems” as so many people define them.

Perhaps the greatest outcome from the conversation between Ravitch and Tilson, as well as the Texas Supreme Court ruling, is that there is conversation about public education.  I am reminded of the adage that there is no such thing as bad PR; perhaps that applies to public education as well.   The more we talk about it, whether we disagree with others or not, the more we seek to understand views that differ from our own, the greater the ability to be an even stronger advocate for public education.  There are always two sides to a story; take the time to click here to understand the views of two individuals who are strong proponents of their own position.  Use that knowledge to hone your message, to sharpen your focus, and continue your effort to Make Education a Priority.  Over 5.2 million students are counting on us to speak for them!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Is “Minimum Constitutional Requirement” Acceptable?

Much has been and will be written about the Supreme Court ruling on school finance.  After reading most of the ruling (and rereading certain parts) and reflecting on the analysis and conclusions drawn by the Court, a couple of thoughts come to mind.  As conveyed immediately after the ruling, I am very disappointed by the Court’s decision that existing school finance meets the “minimum constitutional requirement”.  I will say, however, that the ruling is a good primer to understand the history behind school finance litigation; please take time to read it as well as the concurring opinions.

The decision clearly expressed the Court’s belief that their role is not to rule on process but instead to look to the Legislature to act in a manner consistent with the requirements defined in Article VII, Section 1, which states, “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools“.  But the ruling also calls into question what the terms “suitable provision” and “efficient system” mean.  We cannot leave that definition solely to legislators who by their own admission have limited knowledge of the public education system.

So what do we do now?  First of all, picking up on the ruling that defining adequate funding and then allocating that funding falls to the legislature, there should be heightened awareness on our collective part to increase our level of advocacy.  And that starts with casting votes at the ballot box for those who support public education.  As part of our efforts, however, we must show empathy for the difficult challenges to be faced by legislators in the 85th Legislative Session.  With state revenues down and increasing pressure from health and human services and transportation, among other key topics, this will be a battle for the dollars.

I don’t happen to be a person who believes in criticism alone without offering possible solutions, notwithstanding my challenge of the phrase, “minimum constitutional requirement”.  Any suggestion that we should accept “minimum” as a standard, however, should cause great concern for all of us.  Perhaps this is technically legal but is this the message we want to send to our kids?  Do we accept minimum performance by them or from those that represent us in Austin?

Make Education a Priority is working closely with a number of advocacy organizations to focus on the key messaging to all of our stakeholders, including communities, businesses and elected officials.  We will continue that effort as we strive to help create a consistent “brand” for Texas public education.  Ultimately the measurement of the success of our public education system should be the abilities of the student that are crafted and honed during their enrollment in our schools, and how well they are equipped to be contributing members of our society.  This is not just about process; we must focus on outcomes   For our part, we will continue our efforts to Make Education a Priority.  Won’t you join us?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Since When Do We Grade Based on “Unacceptable” Tests?

The recent challenges with testing in Texas are well documented, ranging from a need to review writing tests to incomplete answer sets.  Many, including a group of about 50 superintendents, have sent letters to the commissioner urging him not to use these flawed tests in the accountability rating structure.  But in an article published recently in the Dallas Morning News, their concerns were largely ignored.   The complete article can be found by clicking here.  While acknowledging that the administration of STAAR tests this year is “unacceptable”, Commissioner Morath indicated that the results of the tests will be a part of the state accountability ratings.

What is particularly troubling to me as a public education advocate is the performance by Educational Testing Services (ETS).  As an example, ETS acknowledges that they were not prepared and had not trained the number of individuals required to grade tests.  We’re talking accountability on the part of students, campuses and districts but where is the accountability for ETS and how can we be certain that steps they are taking to address issues won’t continue to exist as we move forward with additional testing?  And while ETS acknowledged their failures and indicated that, “we have no intention of making this a regular occurrence”, what assurance do we have that this will in fact be resolved without impact students directly?

The article further acknowledged the challenges first surfaced by Lewisville ISD relating to scores on the writing portion of the test.  Of the 130 submitted for review, scores were changed on 20% of them.  And TEA confirmed that about 92% of the scores statewide were unchanged.  This may be a glass half empty or half full discussion but I zero in on the fact that 8% of the scores were changed.  I don’t have a reference point relating to performance by the prior testing administrator but 8% seems like a high number to me!  This number has an extraordinary impact on students, teachers and administrators alike.

Having met with the commissioner earlier this year and following his decisions on a variety of topics, I do believe that he is focused on doing what is necessary to ensure accountability ratings that are fair.  I don’t have the benefit of the bigger picture that he reviewed when making his decision but strongly encourage him to continue to focus not just on outcomes, i.e., test results, but the processes that get us there, including work done by ETS.  And in the spirit of accountability and grades, ETS clearly deserves a failing grade for much of their initial effort under a $280 million contract.  Accountability is the key as we strive to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Need to Invest in Public Education

The debate rages on about the use of education savings grants or vouchers, or whatever advocates for options to public school funding want to call it.  But the reality is that now, more than ever, we should be focused on investing in our students, not diluting spending and diverting dollars to other so called school choice options.  As a reminder, public education is, in fact, one aspect of school choice and it deserves to be recognized as such.

In no case has an industry or business succeeded without ongoing investment in that business.  Public education is no different!  Change is the norm and the discussion about the need for school reform fails to acknowledge that there is significant reform already underway in our public school system.  For example, the classrooms of today reflect a much more collaborative environment when compared to the rows of desks in the classrooms of the public schools most of us attended.  Whereas we once observed how teachers teach, we are now more focused on how students learn.  This is not a one-size-fits-all environment and reform is all about addressing the needs of a student population whose capacity to learn varies greatly.

The nearly 5.3 million public education students are not part of a factory production line where every widget that comes off of the line looks the same.  The inputs in the form of socioeconomic status, language challenges, and parental support, among other variables impacting a student’s ability to learn,  significantly impact the output to be achieved, namely a student poised to function, compete and excel in a changing world.  But this cannot happen without constant refinement and reform in the public education system … and that requires investment, not a shift of funds to other options.

Constitutionally, the State is required to fund public education (Article 7, Section 1) but many act and speak as if there is no obligation.  Ultimately and sadly, it will be up to the courts to decide what investment needs to be made.  Once that is defined, the responsibility will fall to the legislature to make the investments so critical to ensure opportunities and success for our children.  Without investment, the value of businesses declines over time; the risk is that failing to invest in students will ultimately diminish their ability to succeed.

The bottom line is that the discussion needs to focus on the student, not the political posturing that diverts attention and dollars from the classroom.  It is up to the legislature to find the political will and prioritization to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Politics or Students? … Part 2

In my last blog, I addressed a concern that political party affiliation seems to be more important than the needs of students when it comes to conversations about public education.   As a follow up, I recently read an excellent article by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post titled “Diane Ravitch has a most unusual conversation with a billionaire school reformer”.  A link to the article can be found here.

What struck me immediately about this article is that two individuals with very different opinions about public education can have an open and frank discussion about how best to serve the students in public education.  It is conversations such as this that will lead to more positive outcomes and enable all of us to focus more on outcomes than on process.  Ultimately, this discussion must center on the needs of the students, not political party ideologies.

The conversation between Diane Ravitch, a noted public education advocate who wrote the book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” (a great read, by the way, on why she changed her position on standardized testing and No Child Left Behind), and Whitney Tilson, a billionaire hedge fund manager, caused me to step back and not just read their exchange (via their blogs) but to assess my own position on each of the subjects broached.

As I read through the exchange between Ravitch and Tilson, I was struck by the commonality of interest in many areas, yet a completely different perspective on implications and how to address the needs of students.  And despite the fact that I am a lifelong registered Republican, there are many areas where I agree with either or both of them.  I am using their exchange as an opportunity to reflect on my own position on the topics, an opportunity that should impact how effective I can be as a public education advocate.

While political party affiliation, and specifically criticism of those in a Republican-controlled Congress, permeates much of the article, the two spend a majority of their time focusing on the factors that impact our students every day in the classroom.  My sense is that many of us, myself included at times, find it very easy to criticize those whose position may not be in alignment with our own beliefs.  In reading this article, however, I am reminded of the importance of not simply taking a stance and assuming that others who disagree with me are wrong, but of using these differences to engage and have fruitful discussions, all focused on the students, their needs and how best to serve them. 

It starts with open dialog and ends by focusing on the students themselves.  Ms. Ravitch’s change in position on standardized testing was a result of this open dialog and an objective evaluation of the impact of programs she initially supported.  The lesson learned for all of is that, regardless of political affiliation or prior beliefs, we can and must all come together to Make Education a Priority.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Politics or Students?

With the election season upon us and a May 24 election date for trustee races in many school districts, I have been reflecting on how the discussions about public education today have evolved from being about concern for kids to focusing on specific political part ideologies.  And I don’t see that as being a good thing for the nearly 5.3 million public education students in Texas.

I understand that political parties have platforms around which their candidates either need to focus their campaigns or run the risk of being ostracized by their own political party.  Thus the push in the Republican Party for continued tax cuts and a push in the Democratic Party for social programs that assist a broad range of people.  But I believe that many people, myself included, are more inclined to adopt a set of personal beliefs and values that cut across the political spectrum and are not focused solely on the platform of a party; in fact, I believe that the majority of the people feel this way.

However, this moderate perspective seems to somewhat drive away engagement by the majority of the citizens in the political process.  Every day, I hear people say they are not going to vote because they don’t back the platform of a particular party or don’t believe their vote will have an impact.  Unfortunately, that apathy is part of what feeds the extremist perspective for both parties.

I have followed with interest school board races in a couple of North Texas districts, both growing districts whose future may be defined by the outcome of the election on May 24.  In one case, three incumbents are being challenged by individuals whose sole focus is on the word “change”.  But if you press these individuals for what they mean by change and ask them to identify specific elements of current board operations that motivate them to run, they cannot (or will not) offer specifics.

In another district, mailers by one of the candidates clearly use political party affiliation as a reason to oppose individuals running for board seats.  Rather than look at the platform of the candidate specifically as it relates to their pursuit of a position on the school board, thee mailers focus on other elements associated with a particular political party.

I had the privilege of serving my district as a school board trustee for ten years and I am proud of the fact that, while there may have been differences in our political beliefs, not once did those beliefs divert our attention from the reason we were elected, namely to serve our students.  I am hopeful that the outcome of the elections above and others where politics seem more important than the needs of students will ultimately shift the focus to the needs of students.  The role of a school board trustee should be a non-partisan position; there is no denying that political beliefs will shape decisions and actions by trustees but I encourage candidates and incumbents to focus on the students and to Make Education a Priority, not a specific political party affiliation.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Voting – Our Right and Responsibility

We have reached the time of year when we will once again have the opportunity to vote for the candidate of our choice.  In fact, many school board and municipal races were decided on May 7.  What is important, however, is not the opportunity itself but whether we exercise the right to vote.  Sadly, too few of us actually find our way to the polls to cast our votes.  But there may not be a more important time for public education than right now.

Educators are among those who traditionally have very low turnout numbers and there are a number of movements across the state designed to change that.  I have been involved with the Texas Association of Community Schools (TACS), an organization that is leading the charge to change the culture of engagement and to not only encourage educators to vote but to also provide information to educators that will enable the educator to make an informed decision.  Without specifically endorsing any one particular candidate, TACS, through a number of advocacy groups, is providing information relative to candidates’ position on public education.

What happens in the classroom, whether relating to accountability and testing, curriculum, or any other of the myriad of issues and opportunities, is largely a function of decisions made by elected officials, including the legislature and State Board of Education.  It is not enough for an educator or citizen to have an opinion on these topics; the requirement is that everyone demonstrate their opinion and commitment to their own values and beliefs by exercising the right to vote.

I recently read a Facebook post written by a 17 year old Frisco ISD student.  Yes, a 17 year old, someone who is not even eligible to vote but recognizes the importance of the voting process as part of our democratic society.  In her post, found here, she offers a perspective that should cause all of us to pause and reflect.  If a 17 year old feels this strongly about the importance and impact of voting, why should we not view this in the same light?

The bottom line is that the primary elections on May 24 will, in many cases, set the tone for discussions in the 85th Legislature and at SBOE meetings.  Whether you are an educator or serve in some other capacity, please take the time to understand the candidates’ position and specifically look at their position on public education.  Let’s set a tone that will Make Education a Priority.  The nearly 5.3 million children in our public education system are looking to you and to all of us to be responsible citizens who are responsive to their needs.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Legislator Goes Back to School

Make Edcuation a Priority (MEaP) has announced plans to launch School Priority Month (SPM’16) in October of this year and every other year prior to the start of a legislative session.  Fortunately, there are some among those who represent us in Austin who are ahead of the curve and have taken the initiative to better understand the impact of public education on our state’s economy; one such individual is Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio).

A recent article published in the Rivard Report (click here to access the full story) documented Rep. Berna’s efforts and the reasons behind planned visits to the nearly 75 public and charter schools in his district, representing parts of three districts.  While his efforts are certainly on a grander scale, the intent of his visits is very much in line with what MEaP is striving to accomplish with SPM’16 and provides a great reference point to reinforce the importance of maintaining an adequate focus on our public education system.  To his efforts to listen to teachers, principals and superintendents, I would add one very important stakeholder group, the students, stakeholders whose voice is often ignored in the discussion about public education. 

Quoting Rep. Bernal from the article, “The reason I’m doing this is so that I can go to the district, be a good partner, get the  legislature on board, and get things done.”   This is a truly refreshing perspective on how to look at and address the challenges faced every day in our public schools.  This is not just about school finance or accountability.  It’s not about transparency and curriculum or any of the other myriad of challenges faced by students, teachers and administration in our public schools.  This is about addressing the needs of nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students in a way that gives them a chance to succeed and to excel in all that they pursue.

Rep. Bernal’s initiative and efforts are very much in line with the goals established by MEaP in creating the SPM’16 program.  Rather than focus on special interests, SPM’16 will focus on the classroom environment and the needs faced every day by our students.  We applaud the representative’s efforts to Make Education a Priority and look forward to working with him in the 85th Legislative Session.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Districts of Innovation – Part 2

On February 16, I posted a link to an article published in Texas Lone Star by James B Crow, Executive Director of TASB, in which he offered his perspective on the opportunities created by passage of HB 1842 relating to Districts of Innovation.  Within that article was a link to a Q&A that addressed how districts would go about pursuing this.  The link to the article can be found here.

With the Commissioner now having posted rules defining which provisions can be exempted, we can now look at what districts are doing to consider this and how it will impact their ability to make decisions most impactful to their district.

I recently had an opportunity to attend the quarterly meeting of the North Texas Area Association of School Boards (NTAASB), during which Denton ISD discussed steps that they have taken to build on opportunities defined by HB 1842.  HB 1842 defined the process for becoming a district of innovation; TASB’s interpretation of the process can be found by clicking here.

Click on Denton ISD presentation for content presented at the NTAASB meeting.  Other districts at the meeting, including Mansfield ISD and Lewisville ISD,  also shared what they are doing in exploring the feasibility of a district of innovation approach.  The consensus seemed to be that most are pointing toward the Fall of 2017 for implementation due to the requirements defined by HB 1842.

The net of this is that a board must first adopt a resolution and conduct a public hearing on becoming a district of innovation.  The board will then appoint a committee to draft a comprehensive plan that identifies the specific provisions in the Texas Education Code from which the district should be exempted.  The plan must be posted for 30 days, the commissioner must be notified, and District-level advisory committee (DAC) approval is required.  Board adoption of the plan then requires a two-thirds majority vote.

Denton ISD undertook a community survey to better understand the expectations of the community so that they can align the board’s mission, vision and values with those expectations.  This is not a task taken lightly by the board or by the administration.  As part of their direction, Denton ISD will ”advocate and practice true accountability based on measurement of individual progress over time, regardless of external mandates”. 

Adopting a district of innovation approach will provide the district with the flexibility to do those things most important to the community, while pursuing this vision.  The commitment to alignment and using the information gathered to help define direction of the district is a critical element in the discussion about becoming a District of Innovation.   Their progress and willingness to share this with NTAASB member districts clearly demonstrates Denton ISD’s commitment to Make Education a Priority.